Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

August 31, 2007

Theresa Duncan, Jeremy Blake:What Hath Blogmania Wrought?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 6:10 am

People have asked me why I haven’t blogged further on Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake since the beginning of the month when I wrote about hearing one of Jeremy Blake’s last, pre-suicide voice-mails played over the phone. He was asking for “advice” from a friend he’d alienated with conspiracy theory allegations a year earlier. The friend got the message too late.

maybe it was the delayed shock of coming too close to things. I had started from a vast distance away, didn’t know either of them, only knew Theresa through her blog, barely knew Jeremy’s work at all. Suddenly because I’d done an admiring farewell blog post about Theresa I found myself being barraged by friends and foes I never would have met were it not that I wrote about her blog on my blog.

And haphazardly looking into things I was contacted by one of their friends who told an emblematic story about a friendship that ended abruptly with accusations (by Theresa and Jeremy) out of the blue that their friend was conspiring against them. And next thing I knew I was hearing a mild matter-of-fact voice asking his former friend for advice just before following his own inclination walking into the waves. Not waving but drwoning as the famous line (Stevie Smith?) has it. I was hearing the voice of the living dead.

But things kept getting uglier in the Theresa Duncan realm of the blogsophere. It was almost as if the virus of conspiracy theory anger had leapt from the dead to the living. All blogsopheric discussions seem to proceed toward the extreme I guess. Or as another poetm Yeats put it, “the best lack all conviction/the worst are filled with passionate intensity”.

Anyway now that the creeping vines of conspiracy theory have begun to overgrow the graves and obscure the legacies of Duncan and Blake maybe there’s a message–or messages–to be found beneath the tangled snakelike tendrils, perhaps too late as well. I’ve learned that once conspiracy theory starts growing, particularly in the blogosphere it can’t be stopped. It’s an incurable virus. It’s super rewarding! It gives people the feeling they’re really In the Know, and the invincibly smug sense of superiority over any one who doesn’t Get It that comes with it. It’s also, I should say, for some in a more understandable and forgivable way, a means of sublimated grieving.

Indeed it’s particularly ironic because from what I’ve seen and read (I’ve decided for various reasons not to quote from the angry e-mails I have that Theresa and Jeremy sent to friends accusing them of being part of a conspiracy against them), the immediate cause of death may have been sleeping pills [Tylenol PM] (in Theresa’s case) or drowning (in Jeremy’s) but the larger force behind the tragedy less likely to be a conspiracy, but conspiracy theory.

That’s my humble theory: They were strangled, driven mad by their own google abetted conspiracy madness. (all links are equal). And now their legacy is even more conspiracy theory about conspiracy theory.

Don’t get me wrong I believe conspiracies do exist, I don’t dismiss them in their entirety. What differentiates conspiracy theory from evidentiary theory, is, well, actual evidence. One proceeds from evidence to provisional conclusion. The other decides on a conclusion and declares everything it finds evidence of it.

I must admit feeling regret that I may have contributed to this myself, with my early reports that there had not yet been an official pronouncement of suicide as cause of death in the case. It seems to me that when something as unusual and unexplained as the Duncan/Blake deaths happen there should be a caution against a rush to judgment. But no evidence has surfaced to prove foul play and it’s equally bad to rush to judgment that it was murder, or, the latest, some preplanned prank where they’re still alive.

The Duncan/Blake phenomenon illustrates both sides of the blogsophere: there’s a value to a blogswarm ferreting out facts and details that the mainstream media ignores. But there’s a down side, a darkside to it; building conspiracy-haunted castles the air with no basis in fact, just an indiscriminate concatenation of google links interpreted in a uniformly sinister way. Alas not all links are created equal, not all have equal relevance, not all search engine connections are real clues.

What I don’t understand is the anger, the arrogance of those who think they know all the answers. The anger at Theresa and Jeremy, the anger at the reporters who sought to figure out what happened. Some feel that no one (but they?) has a right to be interested in the mystery of why two brilliant artists killed themselves, no one who merely admired their work should write about them unless they were really close to them. Or conversely, no one who knew them should write about them because…I can’t follow this line of reasoning but it’s out there.

It’s a fact of life, not necessarily terrible that people take an interest in the artists they admire, sometimes a trivializing gossipy interest, but sometimes because their work is inspiring in some way and one things one can learn from them as people. I always found some brilliant beautiful (and explicitly sourced) arcane literary references on Theresa’s blog which, along with its beauty and diversity kept me coming back. If she plagiarized some things, shame on her, it doesn’t take away the pleasure she brought by bringing to light those explicitly referenced writers, should it?

Her blog was a fascinating collage of text, images, genres; her voice, her persona, unique. Are writers supposed to write about the least interesting artists they know?

What began as tragedy is beginning to turn into farce with a large or at least vocal faction of the Duncan/Blake blogsophere now apparently believing they didn’t die, they’re still alive, it’s all some “Alternative Reality Game”.

Right. One begins to understand how religions start. And how religions are like conspiracy theories. They didn’t die: They Live! They’ve been resurrected, the hidden gods of art. The theory, like religion, is both a consolation for grief and a way for those “in the know” to think of themselves as superior, more righteous, holier than thou, than everyone else. In on a super duper secret.

I must admit it’s been a fascinating process to watch the way the blogosphere processes information, any fantasy can be real with no need to check it against facts. Remind me, again, of the evidence that the families of Theresa and Jeremy’s families were tricked into thinking they’d lost their children and the bodies they buried were…who again?

It’s all really sad. They hurt themselves, they hurt other people and now other people are hurting other people in their name. Makes me want to watch that Johnny Cash video cover of Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”. Or hear the great Elvis classic “Hurt”. maybe an all-hurt tribute album. Every Little bit hurts. Hurts So Bad. The Big Hurt.

It was Death Week at Graceland, earlier this moth. Have you ever been there? A lot of hurt people singing “Hurt”. I think of the evocative threatening phrase ” a world of hurt” that people use to scare each other. Gonna get yourself a world of hurt.

I think what hurts me is that I’ve seen it happen before and couldn’t help. A guy I used to know named Danny Casolaro an ambitious likable free lance reporter who thought he ‘d come upon the greatest all-purpose conspiracy theory ever; he was taken in by some con men who kept offering but withholding the proof. He never found it and he was found dead in a bathtub in a motel room in Martinsburg West Virginia with his wrists slit. I came to believe he killed himself in a way to make it seem like murder so at last–at very last–people would take the conspiracy theory he couldn’t prove more seriously.

In any case he’d called me a week or so before he left for Martinsburg. He was on the verge of nailing everything down he was telling everyone. If anything happens to me don’t believe it’s suicide. But I combed through his papers with a number of other reporters after his death. All he had were secondhand ex spy tall tales and conspiracy theory retread crapola.. You can read the story in The Secret Parts of Fortune on the left.) Which is maybe why I react the way I do to conspiracy theories these days. I knew someone killed not by a conspiracy, but by conspiracy theory.

I think it’s claimed two more victims.



  1. God. Thank you. Finally. A voice of reason.
    The suicides: Heart breaking.
    The Conspiracy: Non-existent.
    “Plagiarism” on a blog(?!): Meaningless.
    Posthumous Theresa Duncan cottage industry: Shameful.

    Get a life people.

    Thanks, Ron. Keep up the good word.

    Comment by blackpage — August 31, 2007 @ 6:37 pm | Reply

  2. Sorry. I have a different view. I think that you are cycling backwards. “Eating your hands” as said in another language. There are 2, 3, maybe 4 personas in the blogosphere who are behaving very, very badly and they – and only they – have brought out all the crappy discussions. Investigate them…and I think that you might just have a story.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 31, 2007 @ 9:33 pm | Reply

  3. I do not think that humans killing themselves is a heart-breaking event.Except for the dog,maybe-but agree with the shamefulness of “cottage industry”,etc.I think teenagers from terrible backgrounds,who never experienced love or success,and kill themselves,are heartbreaking.Or the deaths of babies,beaten by their insane parents,that is heartbreaking.These people had a great life,with all the best it has to offer-just forshortened.Few people experience unconditional love,and that is what they had-enough for eons.

    Not heartbreaking for their parents and friends?

    Comment by valeriarebours — August 31, 2007 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

  4. “I came to believe he killed himself in a way to make it seem like murder so at last—at very last—people would take the conspiracy theory he couldn’t prove more seriously.”

    You’re kidding, right? You honestly believe someone would KILL themselves so people would take them more seriously???? Talk about cutting your nose off to spite your face……

    I’d respectfully suggest you read the whole story before drawing conclusions about what’s probable or improbable. The guy was in despair because people weren’t buying the mega conspiracy theory he’d been boasting about, for lack of evidence. Shortly before his death he told a number of his friends he was going to W.Va. to get the conclusive proof. Thus setting a suicide up to look like he’d been murdered because he knew too much. That’s certainly what a lot of people believed and probably what he wanted them to believe. He went out as a martyr to conspiracy theory. Sad but not improbable

    Comment by Natalie — September 1, 2007 @ 1:40 am | Reply

  5. “”Plagiarism” on a blog(?!): Meaningless.”

    So it’s okay then if I cut and paste Mr. Rosenbaum’s words on his blog(?!), and post them as mine? Alrighty then! After all, we don’t share the same readers so maybe no one will catch my “homage”-then it will either be really mine or a big “so what” if I’m caught out, right?

    Somehow I don’t think he’d dig that, even on a lowly blog, He’s a writer; wherever his writing appears–blog, bus stop graffiti, book–it’s still HIS, not yours, mine or anyone else’s to borrow as their own. It’s a basic concept.

    And all else taken together re: the Wit of the Staircase blog, that was and remains a stain upon it-right there side by side with whatever good stuff she in fact DID originate entirely on her own. And it’s a silly, probably unnecessary shame to have tainted the good with the very very unethical and lazy.

    As for your entry here, Ron: poetic, thoughtful, heavy-hearted, sad.

    Comment by Astor — September 1, 2007 @ 3:30 am | Reply

  6. Theresa died from an over the counter med & bourbon, not sleeping pills.

    The over the counter med. was Tylenol PM, a sleeping medication.

    Comment by Anonymous — September 1, 2007 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

  7. Hi Astor.
    I think this argument would be more relevant if she were still alive. That said, I don’t believe “Wit of the Staircase” – from its inception – ever suggested itself as a journalistic endeavor. So, I don’t see it necessary to hold it to the same standards as the right honorable Ron Rosenblum. This is a misleading comparison.

    It was recreational entertainment – brainstorming, satire and occasional commentary. Should Dennis Miller site every reference within his jokes?

    And if I’m not mistaken, Wikipedia is an “open source” medium. If this is the case, the information provided is in the public domain. I don’t think intellectual property arguments are applicable. If someone learns something along the way, I couldn’t be happier.

    That being said, I don’t believe Theresa Duncan’s writing habits rank as one of our country’s most pressing concerns at this juncture. We have bigger problems, right now. And the distraction of celebrity obsession is one of them. Paris Hilton has no bearing on the fortunes of this nation.

    Comment by blackpage — September 1, 2007 @ 9:40 pm | Reply

  8. Strictly speaking, Tylenol PM is not “sleeping medication.” Would you consider Benadryl sleeping pills? Because that’s the exact medication that’s used in Tylenol PM as a “sleep aid.” It’s an antihistamine– taking too much of it, ironically, often results in insomnia. It’s not like it’s Seconal. So while technically you could label it “sleeping medication,” to refer to it as “sleeping pills” is somewhat disingenuous. Come on Ron, you’re supposed to be a journalist– take the a few extra minutes it takes to do the required research.

    Sorry not to instantly attend to this important issue by running out to a drug store in the middle of the night. But when I did I found the desription on the Tylenol PM package reads “Pain reliever/Sleep Aid”. Now when someone has headache they don’t reach for Tylenol PM, they reach for it when they need help sleeping. Did Theresa do a chemical assay of the sleep ingredient Diphenhydramine? If it make you happy on this essential matter I’ll think about adding [Tyleonol PM ] in brackets and allowing people to judge for themselves the semantics. But the need for anonymity on such a trivial matter puzzles me. What’s there to fear? BTW, I publish disagreements but I have no obligation to publish any angry, harranguing and/or anonymous comments.

    Comment by Michael — September 1, 2007 @ 9:43 pm | Reply

  9. Even if we have more pressing concerns, we’re all allowed to consider more than one concern at a time.

    Duncan got her Slate perfume assignment on the strength of her blog posts. Later, Slate’s editors were alerted to the original writer from whom Duncan had lifted material–and more than what was printed in the final version.

    An editor I’ve worked with told me of a J-school prof who instructed the class that plagiarism is like a addictive drug–the more you do it, the more you want to do it.

    To say it doesn’t matter misses the point of the creative act–every time you borrow or steal the words of another, you’re really showing that you’ve lost faith in your own creative ability. Plagiarism is one of those petty dishonest acts that leave a grimy smudge on a shiny soul. Do enough of them, and the tarnish won’t go away.

    Theresa was a good writer, but somewhere she’d lost the confidence in her own words.

    It’s an interesting disagreement. Recall, I called her plagiarism “shameful”and don’t defend it. And you may be right about the reaons for it. But am I supposed to erase from my mind the pleasure that reading her blog gave me? It raises intersting philopshical/esthetic questions I don’t have answers for

    Comment by Kate Coe — September 2, 2007 @ 2:04 am | Reply

  10. Hi Kate.
    That’s a fair argument. I just don’t see it as something heavy enough to define her entire legacy. I’ve seen folks, in this arena, equally as talented – with far more abhorrent habits – getting a free pass in the character game; some much less worthy, as well. Present party excluded. Nor do I think it merits a garden of blogs dedicated to this isolated issue. Just my opinion. So be it.

    What really sticks in my craw is the RIDICULOUS industry cliche of people failing to air their grievances until the target leaves the room. In this case, the mice have come out of the walls and proceeded to dine on the corpse. Again, present party excluded.

    BTW Ron, sorry I misspelled your name in my last post. No more beer before commenting.

    ciao bellas.

    ~momento mori~

    Comment by blackpage — September 2, 2007 @ 7:25 pm | Reply

  11. Over the years Bob Dylan has been accused not of plagiarism but of borrowing much of his style from Woody Guthrie, among others. What I got from Duncan (aside from the Slate piece) was that she was trying to find the persona she most wanted to slip into, like Dylan did. She would adopt ways of thinking, speaking and writing then discard them and adopt another. I think that may be something of what you speak Ron. It is nonetheless compelling to read her stuff no matter where it was taken from; she was not a journalist.

    Comment by Sasha Stone — September 3, 2007 @ 12:46 pm | Reply

  12. Thanks Ron for your thoughtful commentary. Theresa was a friend of mine, and I would only add that the most disturbing aspect of this story is not so much the conspiracy theorists, but rather those who, with motives that are more difficult to discern, keep up their relentless attacks on her. . Some are so consumed by their desire to heap opprobrium that they write about Theresa every day. From where comes the passion (and utter lack of compassion) of those like the anonymous blogger “poulet” who point their finger and shout “liar” and “plagiarist” over and over and over again?

    To that point, Theresa’s penchant for pasting things she found into her blog, which was an obvious work of such bricolage, but often without attribution, reveals little more than a shockingly cavalier attitude, especially given that all anyone would have to do was search the text in Google and see where it came from. Do you really think Theresa didn’t realize that? And do you really think she was consciously trying to crib others’ words as her own because she had no faith in her own writing?

    I find it perplexing that she did this, perhaps it even offers a clue into her afflicted state of mind, and you can criticize her for it, or wonder what on earth was she thinking, but give me a break, it’s really not worth much more consideration than that (Coe’s continued desire to make a parable out of this notwithstanding – and really now, why is she posting this stuff all over the place?). And to Coe’s comment above, she is well-aware that incident involved one sentence, and that otherwise the two pieces were completely different. Whether an earlier unpublished draft had more similarities is irrelevant, and begs the question, “So what?”

    Rather, what truly deserves opprobrium is this shameless and surprisingly concerted effort to defame Theresa when she can no longer defend herself.


    Comment by Raymond Doherty — September 4, 2007 @ 9:18 am | Reply

  13. Perhaps Ray D. has inside knowledge from Slate that the editor, Julia Turner, did not have. Did he see the piece turned in? The problems were greater than one sentence. The editors at Slate felt strongly about the plagiarism enough to make an apology to the original writer.

    Rather than try to pretend that these incidents were trivial, Raymond might ponder what the acts of plagiarism must have done to Theresa Duncan.

    Certainly the impulse of a grieving friend is to protect their loved one, and that’s admirable. But to accuse me, other writers and those who spoke to us of “attacks” and defamation is unfair. I didn’t conject or speculate and those whom I quoted were–every one of them–saddened by her death and all recalled her joyfully. Perhaps the Vanity Fair piece will be more to Ray’s liking.

    Comment by Kate Coe — September 7, 2007 @ 12:22 am | Reply

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